The WTO, Agriculture and Food Safety

The underlying premise of the WTO’s agriculture rules is that food should be treated like any other good or commodity, subjected to global market forces and covered by the same sort of trade rules as tin ore, tires or automobiles. But food is not just like an automobile.

Food – like water – is not an optional product that consumers may choose to purchase: food is the basis of life. People without food die while people without cars or tires walk and people without tin ore use local materials. Yet, the WTO’s Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) and the patenting and monopoly control of seeds included in the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) seek to transform food and seeds into commercial units with profit, not sustenance, as the end goal.

Food and agriculture policy has shifted from nation states to global corporations and global markets, from food production to commodity trade. As a result, real food security – and its necessary condition of food sovereignty – is declining.

A few of the past and potential outcomes of the large scale corporate agriculture model promoted by the WTO include:

  • If the AoA were implemented and all farming and food production around the world met “efficiency” rates of western high-input farming, 2 billion of the 3.1 billion people now living on the land throughout the world would no longer be “needed” to participate in the rural sectors of their countries.

  • In Mexico and China, the push to establish large scale corporate agriculture has resulted in millions of peasants losing their rural livelihoods and being forced off the land. An estimated 500 million of China’s peasant farmers are expected to lose their livelihoods as their “surplus” labor is eliminated by China’s agricultural modernization.

  • Meanwhile, these same policies are wreaking the demise of small-scale agriculture in the rich countries. Corporate globalization has accelerated agribusiness consolidation and factory farming with alarming social, food safety and environmental consequences for family farmers in the United States, Canada, Japan, and Europe. The U.S. lost 38,310 small farms between 1995-2002.

  • Increasingly horrific health problems are arising in the countries that have adopted the large scale corporate agriculture model: mad cow disease, widespread food contamination from centralized high-speed slaughter and processing facilities, and obesity, malnutrition, and childhood diabetes linked to consumption of overprocessed foods.

Obviously, something is seriously wrong with current WTO agriculture rules. The volume of food trade is up, but most farmers in rich and poor countries see their income decline, with many losing their farms and livelihoods while consumer food prices have not fallen. Perhaps the only beneficiaries are the global commodity trading companies who were instrumental in writing the AoA rules and who can take advantage of their elimination of government price and supply management to manipulate supply and demand so that prices paid to farmers in countries around the world can be pushed down, but consumer prices for food increased or kept steady, creating profits for the trading firms.